Half a Score and Three Years Ago . . . : Movies: Writer Ron Maxwell fought 13 years to make ‘Gettysburg.’ An assist from Ted Turner pushed the film-miniseries over the top.


Gettysburg, the battle, was a tortuous event with devastating results. Casualties exceeded 45,000 in just three days. It was a crushing defeat for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and a defining event in the Civil War that would foretell the eventual victory of the Union forces.

“Gettysburg”--a new motion picture/miniseries chronicling the battle--was a tortured production with no casualties, unless the wounded spirits of Ron Maxwell, the writer-director who sought to make it for 13 years, counts. After many tussles with a variety of Hollywood forces to get his epic made, the $20-million “Gettysburg” will be released Friday as a 4-hour, 8-minute feature on more than 100 screens through New Line Cinema and will air as a six-hour miniseries (with commercials) on Ted Turner’s TNT next year.

Monday night, the movie bowed to an audience of Washington elite at a gala premiere for Congress, Supreme Court justices, select Pentagon officials and other invited guests. Turner--appearing in a cameo role in “Gettysburg” as a Confederate infantryman--was expected to attend with his wife, Jane Fonda.


Maxwell, commenting on the obstacles he faced since acquiring the movie rights to Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Killer Angels,” in 1980, said: “I was up against something that was larger than me.”

The production called for a cast of thousands in period costume. And the trend in Hollywood was toward high-concept fare. Moreover, Maxwell’s script was 400 pages long.

“I kept saying, this is a story about brotherly love and the flip side, fratricide. This is a great piece of literature,” he said. “It’s a very poignant story with heroes and no one to root against.”

Maxwell, who had directed the romantic comedy “Little Darlings,” did persuade Polygram Pictures to option “The Killer Angels.” Robert Duvall and William Hurt were interested. But soon afterward, Polygram folded. (The company has since been revived under new management.)

Through the early and mid-’80s, Maxwell said, he pitched “The Killer Angels” to every Hollywood studio executive “who sat behind a desk”--some familiar with Shaara’s book, detailing the fears, motivations, triumphs and tragedies of select Gettysburg commanders.

“There was the debacle of ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ There was a cultural malaise . . . ‘So if we make it for a price, who cares about the Civil War?’ . . . and no women,” he said, listing the oft-quoted reasons companies gave for passing.


Frustrated, and putting his own desire to direct aside, he tested the interest of a number of foreign directors, then reconsidered. Only an American would be appropriate.

At one point, Maxwell said Duvall enlisted the interest of Kevin Costner, whom he had met at a 1989 Inaugural Ball for George Bush, to co-star. But Costner then went into production on his own epic, “Dances With Wolves,” and became unavailable.

Exasperated, Maxwell gave up on the idea of “The Killer Angels” as a film, turning to TV, home to such compelling long-form historical dramas as “Roots” and “Lonesome Dove.”

At least by late 1990, the cultural climate for historical subjects had improved. Ken Burns’ PBS ratings-buster, the documentary series “Civil War,” became one of the most talked about of that fall’s TV season. Perhaps most importantly, Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” at 3 1/2 hours, was a box-office hit--and ultimately won the Oscar for best picture.

Of the networks, only ABC was interested. Then the Gulf War hit--as did poor ratings for ABC’s miniseries “Son of the Morning Star,” about the last days of Gen. George Custer. So, two weeks into preproduction on “Gettysburg” in early 1991 the plug was pulled.

By this time, Duvall had just finished filming “Stalin” for HBO and let it be known he was only interested in movie roles--a profound disappointment for Maxwell.


By March, 1991, things turned around when Maxwell, Burns and Costner were all at the Producers Guild of America Awards ceremony, where Civil War buff Ted Turner presented Burns his award for best documentary. There, Maxwell and Burns convinced Turner, a Southerner who once half-joked that the reason he bought the MGM library was to own “Gone With the Wind,” to make “Gettysburg.”

At a projected budget of $13 million, TNT had never produced an epic of this size and scope. But with years of preparation, Maxwell just about had everything in place.

The filmmakers’ first priority was to surmount opposition from the U.S. Park Service to film for several months at Gettysburg National Military Park. Officials finally agreed after being assured (from reading Maxwell’s script) that the production would not be “another bastardization of history by Hollywood,” Maxwell said.

With the exception of Lee, casting of the principal actors to play the key Union and Confederate commanders fell into place once Tom Berenger signed on as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who reluctantly leads the Confederate charge on the last, fateful day of the battle. Martin Sheen was “an 11th hour” hire as Lee after the part was turned down by Albert Finney, George C. Scott and, once again, Duvall.

When Turner saw the dailies, Maxwell said, he decided he wanted a theatrical release for “Gettysburg,” not just a miniseries. That allowed Maxwell to shoot his original screenplay rather than a TV script with shorter scenes to allow for commercials. He also made a 5 1/2-hour director’s cut on video.

Maxwell said the costs of 70mm prints, remixing the sound and mounting several premieres--and a block party for the townspeople of Gettysburg on Oct. 13--increased TNT’s cost by another $7 million--bringing the total budget to a hefty $20 million.